Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Cheryl Strayed is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Wild, which was just selected for Oprah’s Book Club, the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things, and the novel Torch. Strayed writes the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize, Cheryl has had essays and stories published in The Best American Essays, The Best New American Voices, and other anthologies. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Cheryl Strayed: I had my first taste of alcohol when I was a very young child–maybe five or six. I snuck a sip of my father’s beer. He liked to put salt on the rim of the can. The taste was so sharp and intense I remember it vividly. It felt like an injury. Like it would leave a scar on my insides. I still don’t like beer to this day. When I was 14, I had my first real drink, if you call a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler a real drink.
How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
I approach it most days around five or six o’clock–usually by pouring myself a glass of wine. I’m a cocktail/dinner hour drinker. I have an internal shut off valve when it comes to alcohol, I’m grateful to say. Two drinks is generally my limit, though I’ll occasionally drink more.
If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?
My husband hardly ever drinks and I drink almost every night. When our kids were preschool age they referred to any glass with a stem as a “Mommy glass.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think my children have healthy exposure to alcohol. They know it’s something some adults enjoy. My husband and I talk to them about moderation in all things, and we generally model that too.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
I didn’t drink much until I was in my mid-twenties. Two things happened during that time: I began working in restaurants, and I developed a love of wine. It’s really hard not to have a drink after you’ve spent hours running around like a maniac serving people. Plus, most places I worked provided employees with a free drink after work. So I’d sit at the bar and have my free drink, then I’d order another one, then that sexy line cook would finish his shift or that super cool fellow waitress would finish hers, and they’d hunker down beside me. Before I knew it I’d be in someone’s apartment and it was 3am and I’d forgotten all about my two-drink limit. I don’t drink like that anymore, but it led to some interesting experiences.
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
When I sold my book Wild to Knopf in May 2009 my husband and I called a dozen or so of our friends and invited them over for a spontaneous champagne party to celebrate. The problem was we were so utterly broke and maxed out on our credit cards we couldn’t even buy a cheap bottle of bubbly, so we asked our friends to bring something and they did. We all stood around my living room laughing and making toasts.
What about the worst time?
My mom died when I was a senior in college. I was living in a hippie cooperative house at the time and my housemates threw a big party about ten days after her death. It wasn’t just any party. It was a party with a theme: come dressed as your favorite dead person. I was too young and insecure to ask them to call the party off–it had been planned before she got sick and I thought I had no right to impose my wishes on them. So the party went on and for some reason I was there for it. I remember being very cheerful, terribly animated and happy in an exaggerated way. When I think of it now it makes my heart curl up in my chest. I wanted to seem like I was okay, so I drank gaily with everyone and then suddenly, around midnight, I couldn’t do it anymore and I walked out the door and down the sidewalk into the darkness–this was in St. Paul, Minnesota. I walked and walked, half-drunk but entirely awake to myself, not knowing where I was going for the longest time.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
I used to work at this fancy restaurant in Portland that doesn’t exist anymore called L’Auberge. It was a French restaurant with fabulous food and a great wine list. Each year the owner would close the restaurant for a day and open dozens of bottles of wine and have a tasting for the staff. I was so excited to try all these expensive wines that I just kept sipping and sipping and before I knew it, I was quite drunk. At the time, I was dating the man who’s now my husband and I’d brought him with me to the tasting. In my drunken state that afternoon I repeatedly called him by my ex-husband’s name. He didn’t hold it against me, but he could have. He just shook his head and reminded me his name was actually Brian.
If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
I’d be my favorite cocktail: a margarita on the rocks with salt on the rim. There’s a drink to love. It’s sour. It’s sweet. It’s salty. It’s nothing but pure fun.